Monday, March 25, 2013

MLB Preview 2013: NL Central

     A division once dominated by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros, the NL Central has evolved. Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman, and the Cincinnati Reds have taken over the division, the St. Louis Cardinals don't have Albert Pujols anymore, and the Houston Astros moved to the AL West. This division has also weakened quite a bit; will this be the year the Pittsburgh Pirates finally crack .500 for the season?

  1. Cincinnati Reds: Plus: Aroldis Chapman is no ordinary closer; he's shown time and time again that he can throw 100 MPH or more. The Cuban phenom (38 saves, 0.81 WHIP, 1.51 ERA, 122 SO in 68 games) also has a wicked slider to boot. Sean Marshall (22 holds, 1.16 WHIP, 2.51 ERA) and Jonathan Broxton (27 saves, 2.48 ERA) are also great set-up men. The lineup's another strong point. Third baseman Todd Frazier had an impressive rookie campaign last year (.273, 19 HR, 67 RBI, six triples), but must cut back on his strikeouts. First baseman and former NL MVP Joey Votto returns from knee injuries, second baseman Brandon Phillips (.281, 18 HR, 77 RBI, 15 SB) is still a complete player, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (.283, 16 HR, 67 RBI, 21 SB) was a great pickup, left fielder Ryan Ludwick (.275, 26 HR, 80 RBI) is still good, and outfielder Jay Bruce (34 HR, 99 RBI, five triples, 155 SO) is an elite player if he can cut back on the strikeouts himself. Did I mention that their ace Johnny Cueto (2.78 ERA, 19-9, 170 SO, .255 BAA, two complete games) is really good? Minus: While the lineup is capable of producing plenty of runs, they're also capable of striking out a lot as previously mentioned. Not just Frazier and Bruce, but also shortstop Zack Cozart (.246, .288 OBP, 113 SO) and Choo (150 SO last year with Cleveland). Cincinnati could swing themselves into elimination if they don't cut back on the swinging and missing.
  2. St. Louis Cardinals: Plus: A year with Albert Pujols gone didn't phase the Cardinals one bit as they made the postseason and Pujols didn't. In fact, St. Louis was a mere game from a rematch of 2006 with the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. That's due to the likes of third baseman David Freese (.293, 20 HR, 79 RBI) and center fielder Jon Jay (.305, 135 hits, 19 SB) stepping up. Also having catcher Yadier Molina (.315, 22 HR, 76 RBI), right fielder Carlos Beltran (.269, 32 HR, 97 RBI, and 13 SB for a 35-year old), and left fielder Matt Holliday (.295, 27 HR, 102 RBI) also helps. Minus: Cardinals closer Jason Motte will start the season on the DL with an elbow injury for at least a week of the regular season. Shortstop Rafael Furcal is expected to miss several months after getting Tommy John surgery for his elbow and could even miss the entire season. Starting pitcher Chris Carpenter is unsure that he'll ever pitch again due to his shoulder. The point is that St. Louis has a lot of problems staying healthy and this will plague them throughout the season.
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates: Plus: The reason for why Pittsburgh stayed in contention until the last couple months of the season wasn't just because of center fielder Andrew McCutchen (.327, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 20 SB, six triples). The pitching staff managed to hold up just fine. A.J. Burnett got out of Yankee Stadium and returned to form with a 16-10 record, 3.51 ERA, 180 SO, and a shutout. James McDonald started the first half strong, winning nine of his first 17 starts with a 2.37 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP before averting his slider and watching his stats skyrocket the wrong way. Adding Wandy Rodriguez (3.76 ERA, 139 SO, 12-13) during last year's trade deadline and Francisco Liriano helps to bolster the rotation. Minus: Andrew McCutchen can't be the only means of offense for the Bucs. Pittsburgh ranked 27th in team OBP last year at .304 and 25th in team batting average at .243. First baseman Garrett Jones (.274, 27 HR, 86 RBI), second baseman Neil Walker (.280, 14 HR, 69 RBI) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (30 HR, 85 RBI) will certainly help. But the rest of the lineup needs to hit more.
  4. Milwaukee Brewers: Plus: Milwaukee scored the third-most runs in the MLB last year (776) and ranked third in slugging percentage (.437). Left fielder Ryan Braun (.319, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB), third baseman Aramis Ramirez (.300, 27 HR, 105 RBI), and Corey Hart (.270, 30 HR, 83 RBI, four triples) all provided the Brew Crew with plenty of firepower. The Brewers can also run. Braun, center fielder Carlos Gomez (37 stolen bases, four triples), right fielder Norichika Aoki (30 SB, four triples), and second baseman Rickie Weeks (16 SB, four triples) can all steal bases with ease. Minus: If there's one glaring weakness with Milwaukee, it's their bullpen. The Brewers' bullpen led Major League Baseball in blown saves (29, two ahead of the Colorado Rockies) and had the worst ERA in the big leagues (4.66). They got rid of the likes of Francisco Rodriguez and Kameron Loe and are relying more on relievers like Jim Henderson and Brandon Kinzler. But these young arms will have so much pressure on them that Milwaukee will have a hard time contending for the NL Central.
  5. Chicago Cubs: Plus: Signing Edwin Jackson (10-11, 1.22 WHIP, 168 SO, .243 BAA) is a step in the right direction by Theo Epstein. Notre Dame alum Jeff Samardzija (3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 180 SO, .240 BAA) should also have a good year. If returning Matt Garza can stay healthy and have good command (same with Scott Baker once he returns in a month from a muscle strain in his arm), then the Cubs become this year's Oakland A's and surprise a few people. Minus: 28th in total runs scored (613). 26th in team batting average (.240). 29th in OBP (.302). 27th in slugging percentage (.378). Left fielder Alfonso Soriano (32 HR, 108 RBI) and shortstop Starlin Castro (.283, 14 HR, 78 RBI, 12 triples, 25 SB) will provide the Chicago with plenty of offense, but everyone else must contribute.

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